Jayne Margetts on the writing of Chuck Palahniuk
When Bret Easton Ellis unleashed his novel, American Psycho, with its beautiful 18+ logo scripted on a lurid, Picasso-esque cover, my mind went into overdrive. Ellis’ literary missile was unlike anything written before. Its descriptive prose bled psychosis, its painstaking attention to detail as a Guide Book On How To Become A Serial Killer could only have come from the author pawing over endless (and actual) FBI case files – even if his obsession with detailing designer outfits drove me to insanity. But this man captured the ’80s generation with its greed, Darwinian Manifesto and scent of Wall Street’s cold-hearted brutality.
Irvine Welsh carved a new language into our consciousness with his ode to heroin, bleak council estates and a dash of nihilism in 1993 with Trainspotting. Clawing through those initial pages with their illegible scrawl and phonetically terrestrial sounds required the tenacity of a saint.
Then there was sci-fi maverick, Jeff Noon, much less the enfant terrible than his Scottish cousin. Sci-fi had suddenly become cool again and it was less attributable to the Asimov school-of-thought than a quote concocted within the Mail On Sunday laboratory: “Jeff Noon is the Philip K.Dick for the nineties”, it roared.
Noon’s third novel, Automated Alice, was as much a tribute to Lewis Carroll’s original, opiated Alice In Wonderland dream, as it was a journey into cyberpunk psychedelia gone haywire in contemporary Manchester. Nymphomation (released a year later) polluted the reader’s waking hours with the notion of burbflies, automated advertisements chanting their slogans and a slow, synthetic, evolutionary genocide.
The aforementioned authors have all created a new language, so to speak. Sprouted buzzwords like the historians of old and chronicled the social decay of humanity along the way. Ellis paired savage with savvy; Welsh, lower-class narcissism with narcotic decay; and Noon, corporatisation with soulless human existence. They all hacked into the literary, global cog, shunned the sweet smelling pungency of sentimental verse and offered up their own versions of the darker edge of the sword.
And then there’s Chuck Palahniuk.
Critic Roger Ebert crowned him the godfather of “Macho Porn”, while New York Newsday gushed that Palahniuk’s voice “rearranged Vonnegut’s sly humour, DeLillo’s mordant social analysis with Pynchon’s antic surrealism”. In short, the new kid on the block with his swag of arrogance titled Fight Club (1995) struck a subliminal chord. This was an author who was much less concerned with sprouting flowery prose and more preoccupied with stark revelations.
Fight Club painted a portrait of humanity drained of colour. It was gritty and hard-boiled, bleak but overflowing with wisdom. Tyler Durden, his protagonist, was a one-man army. He was the insomnia inside us all. The dull, dull thud of an eternal teckno beat. A jackhammer spraying cynicism like a sniper on the loose. Out of control!
Fight Club finally found its way onto the big-screen (like Ellis’ American Psycho) in 1999, and was directed by the controversial David Fincher (Alien 3, The Game, Seven), and starred Ed Norton and Brad Pitt. The film delivered a fatal blow to the solar plexus. With a deadpan sneer and caustic ambience it hit a raw nerve. Its message? WE HAD ALL BECOME AUTOMATED ZOMBIES. We were now indistinguishable from the dead. ‘Hey, the living dead are populating an Ikea furnished Metropolis.’ Albert Camus had suddenly found a worthy successor.
The shock value of Fight Club gave an insight into the deviant corners of Palahniuk’s mind. He would continue to shock a readership by churning out a novel every couple of years. Furthermore, if characters getting their kicks by frequenting the local Testicular Cancer Survivors group wasn’t enough to shock a readership ill-prepared for such irreverence, then his next evangelical novel, Survivor (1999) would.
Admittedly, his second novel was less punchy, less guttural than the first, but it was truly original in its storyline. So here was yet another misfit, about to hold society to ransom again. Meet Tender Branson, surviving member of a Death Cult hijacking an empty Boeing 747 for the purpose of recording his sordid tale into the jumbo’s black box recorder. This was Reverend Jim Jones on Ecstasy with a global score to settle. This was a day-trip into the darker corners of immortality and isolation with a slab of comic humour to boot.
Male testosterone took a back seat in 2000 when Palahniuk released Invisible Monsters. It was a grand departure from his previous novels in that it had a female (a severely dysfunctional one, naturally) at its helm. Brandy Alexander was the Catwalk Queen. She had it all. A face that could launch a thousand ships and adored by everyone. But a horrendous car ‘accident’ changes all of that. From beauty queen to hideously disfigured freak, Brandy personifies our preoccupation with skin-deep vanity and proves that hell hath no fury like a woman’s scorn.
The majority of Palahniuk’s protagonists are madmen and reincarnations of Jesus Christ: picture their creator as a modern-day Dr Frankenstein if you will, grabbing DNA strands from the Shroud of Turin, a dash of homicidal vigour, the conceit of a Ronnie Biggs and smearing them through a contemporary narrative.
Choke (2000), his fourth novel, was a screaming page-turner, his narrator, Victor Mancini, one of the greatest scam artists of all time. While his mother (God bless her) languished in the local hospital, he devised a new occupation and a great way to make bucks.
Go to a restaurant, (make sure it’s full, of course), choke on a piece of food, wait for a good samaritan to come and save you, and knowing humanity the way it is, you can be sure that the hero who ‘saves you’ will feel indebted to you for the rest of their natural lives. Money of course won’t be a problem again. If they’ve saved you once, you can damn well expect they will do it a thousand times! Add into the equation a few shifts at the local theme park and the occasional night out at an intimate, little sex addiction group (one of Palahniuk’s favourite haunts), and you’ve got a very fulfilling life.
Bret Easton Ellis pondered the question: ‘Has our generation finally found its Don DeLillo?’ The New York Times Bestseller list confirms Palahniuk as an author of importance, yet regardless of platitudes, this Portland native retains a low key. His latest novel, Lullaby (2002) hit bookshelves in the quietest of fashions, and, again, deals with the darker underbelly of American life. This time around the microscope falls upon two topics – a serial killer and ‘psychic infection’. “Imagine a plague you catch through your ears … Imagine an idea that occupies your mind like a city…”
It’s too good an offer to refuse…
On the eve of Fight Club’s release in 1995, Palahniuk and I chatted. He was an easy and natural conversationalist. He spoke of working as a glorified technical writer at the city’s Freight Terminal and of how he churned out manuals on trucks, service and cars in the industrial heartland of blue-collar America. He also spoke of cruising along the Portland Freeway one morning when a car pulled up alongside him. “A freeway sniper pointed a gun directly at my head,” he remembered.
Palahniuk’s writing is a backlash. It’s about embracing disaster and using it as a platform from which to mirror society back upon itself. In Palahniuk’s own words: “I figure if you can play on the basis of something that really scares people like fights or terminal illness. If you go right up to it and laugh at it, and have fun around it, and really disempower it by doing that, then that’s the greatest thing you can do. I can make people laugh about death, laugh about fights, laugh about pain, then I’ve done my little thing for the world. I finally feel complete and liberated.”
Chuck Palahniuk is a product of his environment, but more importantly, he is THE product of his generation. He is the coroner of the millennium. If there is a ‘self-help’ group gathered in the dark of night, Palahniuk is sure to be there playing the “tourist”. His voice is one that refuses to be tempered. It is devoid of diplomacy and rife with a quiet anger.
Palahniuk’s voice is a shrill scream trumpeting for the revolt against order and conformity, but it is also filled with pain and satire. When two of Fight Club’s main characters meet it all becomes abundantly clear why its author has already made his notch in society’s belt: “I want to have your abortion,” Marla drawls. Suddenly everything sacred between men and women tumbles into a psychotic heap.
It’s a challenging and confrontational statement. A little on the bolshie side, sure, but necessary. If the world is in the process of undergoing a ‘collective identity crisis’ then Palahniuk is writing a thesis on how to bring it on. His characters travel the dark road from isolation back out into the arms of communal existence. They are battle-worn and scarred and their trajectory crude and uncompromising.
Both the characters and their creator shy away from compromise. It is as alien to them as subtlety is to Anna Nicole Smith. They are holding up a mirror to each and every one of us and reflecting back something both ugly and desperate. It’s daring. It’s sexy. And it sneers at redemption. This is what sets Palahniuk aside. He’s prepared to play the messenger and the Devil’s Advocate, simultanously, regardless of the price…
Yes, our generation has found its Don DeLillo and he comes armed with a scalpel. His literary instrument hacks deep into the malignancy eating away at our society, but still the tumour continues to grow, feeding on pessimism, fatality and dark, dark satire. This is all Chuck Palahniuk needs to continue. It was all he ever needed, and if the hunger pains should start to growl he only needs to look to the news 24/7…